A Hamper from Fortnum's
A wonderful friend and reader of the series sent my daughter Mélanie and me a fabulous gift last week – a hamper from Fortnum & Mason. I love Fortnum’s. I’ve had some wonderful teas there - both formal tea with a friend all dressed up with hats and more casual popping in for tea and scones after a day of research - but I’ve never had one of their hampers. I do order things from Britain fairly often, but mostly clothes. It never occurred to me to order one of their hampers, though Fortnum’s was sending their signature wicker hampers all over the world hundreds of years before the days of the internet. Their hampers go back to the late 1730s. Wealthy travelers would take them long on journeys to sustain them in place of the food to be found at coaching inns, often of dubious quality. With the popularity of fêtes champêptres (picnics) in the late 18th century and Regency era, the beau monde found a new use for hampers containing Fortnum’s delicacies.
In my recent release The Mayfair Affair, Spanish-Irish revolutionary Raoul O’Roarke brings a hamper from Fortnum’s filled with typical Regency fare with him when he visits governess Laura Dudley in Newgate, where she is imprisoned on charges of murdering the Duke of Trenchard.
"I'd have been here sooner, but I stopped for supplies." O'Roarke advanced into the room and set a hamper on the table.
The key scraped as the turnkey locked them in. Laura regarded the hamper. She had seen similar ones tucked into the Rannochs' open landau on expeditions to picnic at Richmond. "That's from Fortnum’s.”
"Do you object to Fortnum's?" O'Roarke opened the hamper, took out a linen cloth, tossed it over the table, and then proceeded to extract a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheddar and one of Stilton, scotched eggs, and apples and oranges. "Perhaps it's hypocritical of me to relish such a symbol of the British establishment, but I confess I'm quite fond of their hampers.”
"It seems a bit extravagant for Newgate.”
"On the contrary." O'Roarke pulled two glasses from the hamper, followed by a wine bottle. "It seems precisely what is called for in circumstances like these.”
In the Victorian era hampers from Fortnum’s were a frequent sight at regattas, cricket matches, and other outdoor events that became fixtures of the social season. But the signature hampers weren’t just found at social occasions. Fortnum’s sent provisions to Wellington’s troops during the Waterloo campaign. Queen Victoria sent beef tea to Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, and during World War I parcels from Fortnum’s were dispatched not just to troops but to Red Cross outposts and prisoners of war. British troops today still receive consignments of tea, jam, biscuits, and other delicacies from Fortnum’s.
Fortnum’s signature hampers have accompanied explorers all over the world, including on expeditions down the Congo and up Mount Everest and have nourished (and continue to nourish) British ex-pats, Anglophiles, and simply those with a taste for superb tea and other delicacies round the world.
Including in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m finding the contents of our hamper wonderful writing inspiration (I’m sipping the Earl Grey as I write this post) and Mélanie loves the biscuits (“the best cookie I ever had”) and playing with the hamper itself.